Reaping the Benefits

July 16, 2012

I believe it pays well to keep an open mind in all aspects of life.  While health insurance and a 401(k) would certainly be nice, “benefits” are truly subjective.  Being a seasonal employee may not provide me with a lucrative retirement plan, but I like to think my job provides me with a pretty good exercise program, a nice tan, and the opportunity to see things many people may never see.   Just recently, I had a close encounter with one of the world’s rarest butterflies — the federally endangered Mitchell’s Satyr.

The Mitchell’s Satyr butterfly is currently found in only eleven counties in the entire United States!  This species’ scarcity is a result of habitat loss and degradation, and unfortunately, the habitat type in which they thrive is considered globally rare.  Mitchell’s Satyrs are typically found in fens — a wetland habitat characterized by low nutrient levels and alkaline-rich groundwater seeps.  Fens are generally comprised of highly diverse plant communities with the dominating vegetation being poison sumac, sedges, deciduous shrubs, and tamaracks.  Like many ecosystems, fens depend on disturbances such as fire to keep the ecosystem in balance.  While the ideal Mitchell’s Satyr habitat is still somewhat poorly understood, it is believed the butterfly has a strong association with Carex stricta, commonly known as Tussock sedge. 

Not only is the Mitchell’s Satyr’s habitat unique, but their life cycle is quite interesting too.  They spend most of their lives as caterpillars, and when they finally emerge as adult butterflies, they only live for two weeks, so it is vital to monitor them at peak flight during their short life span.  This year, that critical time happened to be one of the 100+ degree days we’ve all been graced with this summer.  And luckily for us, it felt even hotter, as fens tend to be extremely humid.  Though monitoring conditions were not exactly ideal, I was privileged enough to see a Mitchell’s Satyr up close and personal, as it apparently found my thumb to be a nice resting place, which made the day well worthwhile.

Aside from our day of Mitchell’s Satyr monitoring, most of our time has been spent on the beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline.  Amazingly, we’ve already surveyed over 40 miles, which means we are around the halfway mark — about St. Joe area.  Invasive encounters have been far and few between with the most common sighting being Phragmites.  On my latest hike—the longest yet—I had the pleasure of a Sanderling’s company on my seventh mile of the walk. What a cool bird! It did not seem bothered by me in the least, which posed plenty of photo opportunities.  A lot of this stretch was severely eroded, and while it didn’t serve well for plants, it made a wonderful home for a multitude of bank swallows.  There must have been close to 100 nests in one bank! 

You never know what you might run into while walking the lakeshore.  Sometimes there are obstacles to overcome — such as giant concrete piles — something I had the pleasure of experiencing near South Haven, and sometimes it’s just white sand and pristine beach for miles.  Regardless of what you run into on the beach or wherever you may be — try to keep an open mind — you’ll see it’s possible to find something beautiful and beneficial . . . even under less-than-ideal circumstances and often in the most unexpected places.

— Kristin Schinske

[photos by Kristin Schinske]